Carter Burwell

Music for the films of Joel & Ethan Coen

Published in Cinesonic - The World Of Sound In Film - AFTRS Publishing, Sydney © 1999
Transcribed & edited by Philip Brophy from the talk delivered at the conference in 1998>br> Reprinted in The Coen Brothers’ Fargo - edited by William G. Luhr, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2004
Fargo © 1996


The relationship between Burwell and Joel & Ethan Coen is rare. Burwell's music - chamelon-like, eclectic, unexpected - perfectly matches the many genre-bending excursions of the Coens' projects. Often working at a meta-textual level, the Coens' films are acutely aware of an audience being conscious of the story-telling manipulations which drive contemporary cinema. To this end, the Coen's use of Burwell's music always seeks ways to side-step conventional methods of 'emotional cueing' an audience with snippets of mood music. Burwell's prime eclecticism lies in a strange mis-matching, whereby his cues at first appear to 'not fit' - but eventually reveal a depth that is rooted in the complex story-telling craft of the Coens' narratives.

Carter Burwell discusses his ongoing collaboration with the Coens, using the Coens' films as illustrations of aesthetic choices in film music and detailing the various changes which occurred through the editing and sound post-production phases. Barton Fink will be discussed as an example of collaboration between sound design and score, The Big Lebowski for the frustrations and challenges of working with a song score, and Fargo as a balance between irony and believability. Excerpts of the films will be augmented by samples of scenes before-and-after music, and examples of score that didn't make it to the final films.

Philip Brophy

The process of film composing

I've known Joel and Ethan Coen for a long time. Their first film was my first film. It's that simple. Their films are good for discussing the types of choices a film composer has to make, and they range over a wide variety of musical genres. For people who are not very familiar with film scoring, let me go through a little of the process involved.

First, Joel and Ethan write a script and give it to me. We'll talk about what type of music might be appropriate, a conversation which continues through the shooting process. I usually go and watch some of the shoot ñ partly to see what visual environment is involved. I don't really start writing until they finish shooting. Prior to that, the most specific we'll get about the music is to consider the type of orchestra that might be involved, so that they can budget it properly. Once they have a rough edit of the film, we have a meeting called a 'spotting session' where we decide on the most elemental level where each piece of music begins and ends.

Of course, more important than that is the question of what the music is actually supposed to say: what the point of it might be. One of the most enjoyable things about working with Joel and Ethan is that they don't have any preconceived answers to these questions. Occasionally they might have an idea about the scale of the music, but I don't think they've ever come to me and said 'Yes, this is the type of music that we need'. In fact, that is more typical of situations in which a director is uncomfortable with some aspect of the movie. Such a director will say 'This scene really needs this because the chemistry between the actors didn't work' or 'It really needs this because we couldn't get the camera shot I wanted'. Conversely, Joel and Ethan are very thorough, so it is rarely the case that when the film is finished, something they wanted has not already been taken care of.

After the spotting session I go back and I do some writing. Initially, I try to think for myself what the music needs to do for the film: what it can contribute, and how I can translate that into melodies. I'm a bit of a sucker for melodies, so usually there are melodies involved ñ but at this early stage I'm also considering what 'sound palette' I'm going to use. I'll use synthesizers to put together a sketch of my ideas ñ partly for Joel and Ethan's sake, or any director's sake, so they can come and hear what I want to do. This is because it's terrible to be at a recording session with an orchestra of a hundred musicians and have the director hear the music for the first time and say 'That's not what we're talking about'. Also, using orchestras is very expensive on a minute-by-minute basis. I always produce synthesised versions of my musical ideas ñ not only for the director, but also for myself. It's a great luxury to use synthesizers and samplers for orchestration. I can hear a version of what the score is going to sound like before conducting a real orchestra. Of course, most of the synthesizer and sampler sounds will be replaced by real humans playing real instruments, which will always be an improvement. As good as synth demos are, the real thing always sounds a lot better. So, finally after these periods of discussing, sketching, testing and orchestrating comes the recording session.

Solving problems and answering questions

In order to discuss the choices a composer makes, I'm going to look at each of the Coens' films in terms of problems and how they might have been solved. Solving problems in film composing is part intuition and part intellect. For everyone who does something like this, it's mostly their intuition which tells them what is appropriate. I'm not in a position to theorise about what I do, nor I would I want to. It would be inappropriate because there are people paid to do that, and it would distract from my real job, which is to be intuitive about composing.

When I see a film, I'm usually thinking about what I would like the music to do ñ what I would do to make it a richer experience for me, make it somehow more dramatic or emotional. But once I've decided what that should be, it becomes an intellectual problem. This is what I think the music should do in this scene, but how will I achieve that while faced with constraints like the film's budget and schedule, the actual piece of film I'm looking at, and my own abilities as a composer and conductor? So, intellect takes me through that maze to find a solution to the question that was really an intuitive one at first. The types of question that I answer in these situations are: what kind of melody is required? or, should my composition even be melodic? should it just be sound construction carried out by the film's sound design and editing? if melody is needed, then what would be its instrumentation?

To some extent instrumentation is dictated by budget, but as composers like Howard Shore and I now work in a lot of Hollywood films it is not difficult for us to get a symphony orchestra if we want. However, that does not necessarily mean it is appropriate. A symphony orchestra is a wonderful instrument, but I find it much more interesting and fulfilling to have smaller ensembles and choose quirky instrumentation: what Howard Shore did with Crash [1996] is a perfect example of that.

Another composing question I search to answer is: to what extent will my score either refer to the picture or live in a world of its own? Some of my scores seem to be in a world separate from the picture. I certainly don't think they are in a reality separate from the picture, but often they don't referring to the action on screen. This is partly because I am personally not concerned with the incidents going on. I watch the film plot, but it's one of the last things that interest me. If someone says tell me the story of a film, I vague-out after the first sentence: it's just not interesting. So the question for me as a film composer is: are there places where the music really needs to refer to the film? Of course I've worked on other Hollywood films where music is constantly referring to the action, the characters and the plot situations, but with Joel and Ethan I have the pleasure of not doing that. The work I've done for their films contains moments of where music, having ignored most of what is happening in the film, suddenly begins to pay attention to the action on-screen. It has an interesting effect.

Yet another question I often grapple with is what should define the score's musical themes ñ to what should I attach them? Each character can have a theme. Certain situations can have themes. Parts of the storyline can have themes. Typically in Joel and Ethan's work, I do attach themes to characters because their writing is very character-oriented. Often their films will simply have one or two characters, and you see almost the entire film through their eyes. So most of my composing for their films will be based around a theme that attaches to character.

The Coens' central character is typically a relatively normal, average person, without any extraordinary qualities, who finds himself caught up in extraordinary circumstances which are generally of a tragic and cruel nature. Pathos, then, is one of the theatrical effects that the music is required to deliver. And, at the same time, the Coens' movies are almost always comedies on some level, and by far the most interesting aspect of what I do is that it has to be both of those things.

On the subject of comedy, the Coens' films are often referred to as ironical. I don't think of it as being that way for any intellectual or objective reason. The reason Joel and Ethan and I get along is simply because we view life that way. The first time I saw footage for Blood Simple [1984], I went home and wrote some melodies and brought them in the very next day. Joel and Ethan liked the music I composed, and ever since then it's been a seamless collaboration. We see life in a similar way, which is to say that the paradoxes in life make it so much fun, and the horrible things in life are what makes life really funny. So, the irony in the work is not there for any irrevocable reason: it's just the way we see life.

But when this type of 'irony' appears in music, it also has an additional effect, in that the music is telling you something different to what you are seeing on the screen. It tells you that something is happening which does not meet the eye. Yet because music is such an abstract art, it does not tell you what that 'more' is. That's a little unsettling ñ which is another typical adjective that we ascribe to the music in Joel and Ethan's movies.

Blood Simple

Blood Simple was originally mixed in mono. It was a very low budget film so we could not mix it in Dolby stereo, and Joel and Ethan could not afford some songs they wanted to be coming out of the juke box. Recently, however, October Films agreed to subsidise a remix of the film. Amazingly, we found in a vault somewhere the original twenty-four track master of the music, so I was able to do some sort of stereo mix. There will be a laser disc and a DVD of the movie soon, probably accompanied by a limited theatrical release in some cities in the States.

So, in Blood Simple, the themes are attached to neither the action nor the drama ñ not even to the characters. They float freely, and I think it is important that they do not attach to any of those things, and that the music remains very repetitious, relentlessly repetitious. Hopefully this gives a sense of a mechanism that is unwinding but outside the reach of the characters. No matter what they do, things don't change, just as the music does not change. Both music and characters are in some sort of machine that will unwind of its own accord.

Another effect of repetition is its inevitable implication of tension: the repetition of a melody leads you to wait for its end. You know that it will not go on forever, so there is something about finally hearing a secondary part to the music that is quite striking. This approach is used for a cue in Blood Simple which we called 'The Night of the Fans'. There are three characters caught within a love triangle: the husband, played by Dan Hedaya, staying up late at the bar he owns; his wife, played by Fran McDormand, who has left him and is at this moment staying with another guy, played by John Getz. The cue covers a night-time scene and there are ceiling fans of sorts in all three locations. The theme of the fans and the music gives the idea that they are all thinking about each other, even though they are in different spaces.

The original idea Joel and Ethan had for the score was that it would all be electronic. There would be bits I played on piano but they wanted it to be generally cold: warmth is rarely part of Joel and Ethan's scheme for any of their movies. It is not something they consciously think about; it usually only comes about when we're working on the music. Yet it is something I feel I contribute to their films for better or worse, and I think one of the better things my music does is draw an audience into situations that they otherwise want to avoid. Things like being buried alive (as in Blood Simple). Also, I think that due to the Coens being such technical masters of filmmaking that, again, 'warmth' can get you past that. It can mitigate the cool perfection of the frame. Not unlike some of Hitchcock's work and the scores provided by Bernard Herrmann. The Coens' films look so perfect it can give you the impression that there is no emotion there.

Another cue from Blood Simple extends this idea of repetition further. Relentlessness, once it has been established, can then be subverted for new purposes. The same theme from the ceiling fans sequence plays again much later in the film, when John Getz starts his car to leave after having buried Dan Hedaya alive. The cue plays briefly and is then interrupted as his car engine stalls. It has a striking effect. Whether you like it or not is another question. You could think that kind of self-consciousness is just snide or funny, but I like it. Blood Simple is after all a snide film and it has got some moves that are extremely self-conscious. One such move is when the camera tracks down the bar: it gets to this drunk slumped on the bar ñ and then simply goes over his slumped body. Admittedly Barry Sonnenfeld was their camerman, so those moves are almost inevitable. But what happens in the cue where the music 'stalls' with the car engine is that the music suddenly and for the first time decides to pay attention to the film action. This moment works as a joke and lightens things when you would least expect it. It tends to diminish the drama of what's just happened ñ a man being buried alive ñ rather than heighten it, and that kind of undercutting is something that we almost always do. And it often infuriates the audience.


That idea of the relentless music ñ it seems so inevitable in the whole film. Whose idea was that? Is that something that you came up with from seeing the film or does it originate from a plan the Coens had at the beginning?

If Joel and Ethan had any plans about the music, I didn't hear about them. This is the first film that they made and they were encouraged to try a 'higher' composer who had some experience in the field ñ which I certainly didn't. So they had to interview dozens of people until the producers were satisfied that they had exhausted them and still wanted to hire me. But, no, they never expressed any ideas like the use of relentlessness and so on. That was certainly my idea; it is also my taste. If I had played to the action with my cues, I think Blood Simple would have been categorized as a B movie, because that is the type of story it is, ie. a love triangle that goes bad. The tagline for the movie when it was first released was 'Breaking up is hard to do'. Of course it also helps to get the film into a whole different world. It was undistributed for more than a year until finally the Toronto Film Festival picked it up and it got a good response there. Then the New York Film Festival picked it up, so people stopped thinking of it as a bad thriller and started thinking of it as a good art movie. I saw it at the New York Film Festival, where it was taken very seriously. And then it started playing midnight movie shows in New York and I saw it several months later after it had been there for a long time. There the audience was just laughing through the whole thing. Screaming and shouting out the lines before that character would say them, which I think is the more appropriate response to the film. I know I am not answering your question but ...yes, the relentlessness was my idea, although I would not say I intellectualised it at the time I was doing it. It just felt right.

To what extent was improvisation a big part in that sequence - like a hands on approach to something sonorised and written down?

Well, that brings us to a painful point which is that, back when we did the film, neither Joel nor Ethan nor I nor anybody we knew understood anything about how to synchronise music with film during the recording process. So, we would time the scene with a stop watch and say 'Well, I guess we need three minutes and twelve seconds of music here'. I would then sit down at a piano and play three minutes and twelve seconds of music. In situations like the stalling car engine where the music actually does stop and end I had to set a metronome or something to make it work out right. In other cases, like the ceiling fans cue where the music just sort of fades away, I could just play forever as it didn't matter so much.

But there is no real improvisation in Blood Simple because I played all the instruments. It was not as though there was a band playing together; it was just me and the tape. Other pieces in the movie get involved in electronic processes. There are the pieces that have tape loops or have ...voices played backwards. Actually my favourite piece in the movie involves one of Arthur Lomax's recordings he made in the thirties of prisoners at Parchman Penal Colony in the States. That was played backwards under this huge synthesised drum track and you can't recognise anything the voices are saying because they are played backwards. It's just unsettling. Scores like Blood Simple are a bunch of experiments to see what works. I certainly did not pretend that I had any idea of what was actually appropriate for the film. I was just trying things to see how they worked, and I would go with them if they did. Joel and Ethan certainly had no compunctions about taking taped music that was written for one scene and putting it somewhere else. It was fine with me.

Raising Arizona

Raising Arizona [1987] was the next movie I worked on for the Coens and it is completely unlike Blood Simple. It is much more of a comedy. The characters are ostensibly familiar characters ñ there's cops and robbers, convicts and bounty hunters ñ but one of the things that is really charming about it, is that the characters express themselves in this florid storybook type of language. When I read it as a script I thought the script was so good there was really no point in making a movie out of it. It takes place in Arizona which is 'The West' as far as America is concerned, but it takes place in contemporary times: Arizona is one big suburb now. Yet the characters still express themselves as though they are living in a Zane Grey western, and it's quite beautifully written.

So, I think that was one of the keys to me ñ that these characters are coming from extremely humble material but they have very noble aspirations and they express them that way. The score is like that. It is built from very humble materials: a banjo player, a singer, someone playing spoons, someone whistling, things like that, but it also hopefully expresses some of the romance of the old west The vocals are done in yodelling style which is meant to suggest that while all these proceedings are taking place, the 'heart' behind them is the heart of a cowboy: riding horseback, whipping off his stetson and letting go a yodel, even though the on-screen action shows people running down suburban streets. It would be unfair not to mention the impact of budget on sessions like that: Raising Arizona had an extremely low budget, so working with banjo and spoons was a good choice.

Some plot points. Nicholas Cage ñ an habitual offender ñ is always holding up convenience stores. Through all his times in and out of prison he keeps running into the same cop who's played by Holly Hunter. They fall in love and he vows to go straight, so when he gets out of prison, they get married. All this happens before the titles at the beginning of the movie, and then they find that they cannot have children. As he says 'Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase'. And because of his criminal record they are not really able to adopt a child. They discover that the Nathan Arizona family has had quintuplets, and decide to kidnap one of them. But it puts them in a touchy situation as far as the law is concerned. The wife, Holly Hunter, is an ex-policewoman so, of course, she feels sworn to uphold the law, while her husband, Nicholas Cage, finds it difficult to keep away from the convenience stores.

The scene where their marital stability starts to fall apart is when Nicholas Cage robs a convenience store of some Huggies. A chase ensues, and the theme involving the banjo, yodelling, spoons, etc, carries across that long scene which we called 'The Huggies Chase'. I'll just draw your attention to the fact that playing in the convenience store is a muzak rendition of the very thing you hear during the chase that follows for several minutes. It is quite an involved scene. I was in Scottsdale while they were shooting it and they had to have several dobermans lined up because their toe pads would get worn down from running on asphalt. They had to bring in stand-by dobermans, and all the other dogs in the neighbourhood were barking the whole night long. The yodeller was a guy from Tennessee that we found ñ he was actually working on Broadway at that time ñ and the banjo player is Ben Fried, Joel and Ethan's optometrist.

Barton Fink

Barton Fink [1991] is actually my favourite of Joel and Ethan's movies. Barton Fink is a playwright, a sort of Clifford Odets-style playwright played by John Turturro, and he's in every scene. The movie is entirely from his point of view. There is also almost no plot to Barton Fink. Again, you more plot-oriented people can tell me if I am wrong, but while there seems to be a plot, about half-way through the movie makes about a ninety-degree turn. From there on I don't think the story makes any sense in terms of cause and effect. Joel originally thought there actually should not be any music. There would just be sound design and maybe I would contribute something to that. But after I saw the film I composed a melody that I thought was very nice for Barton, and it contributed something in terms of explaining his personality. It almost gives a 'back story' to him, you might say. The melody is extremely childlike in nature and the octave jumps make it sound like it might be played on a toy piano. It suggests Barton's naivety which is an important part of the story and for me it also suggests some of the darkness, confusion and cruelty in his childhood, and that helps to explain some of the things that go on in the film. This melody is also very unresolving. In fact it never ends until the very end title, where we hear the last chord reach resolution. The melody is three and a half bars long which means that it repeats unexpectedly. Sometimes in the film it's very repetitious, but it remains unpredictably repetitious.

A key scene featuring this melody is when Barton is sweating in his hotel room, suffering from writer's block and other anxieties. Actually the most important thing in that scene is the sound design. Skip Lievsay did the sound design for Barton Fink as he has done for all Joel and Ethan's movies. Howard Shore spoke about Skip regarding Silence of the Lambs [see pp..]. He has done work for Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee, and so on. I think he is really the most imaginative sound designer working out of New York, and I put him in the class with Walter Murch and Alan Splitt and people of that calibre. Barton Fink is an example of what I think is an optimum interaction between the composer and the sound designer.

Skip and I have known each other a long time. He was a bass player and he knew what I was doing in New York, and he introduced me to Joel and Ethan. We actually spotted Barton Fink together. In that case, we went through the film from beginning to end. There's a lot of non-naturalistic sound in the movie so I needed him there to tell me what was going on. He would say 'Well, in this scene there's this low rumbling in the hotel that I got from the guy who did the sound design for the movie The Abyss' [1989]. He had given Skip all these underwater sounds of metal plates cracking under water pressure, and they're actually used quite a bit in the hotel where Barton Fink is staying. We also discussed how we might parcel out the frequency space in each scene. Skip would say 'Well, there's a mosquito here'. And I'd say 'Okay, I've got low brass'. And he'd say 'I've got this rumbling that's going to come from the sink'. And I'd say 'I'll give you the low end and I'll do this'. Or we would collaborate and I'd say 'I'm doing this prepared piano part here and it's metallic-sounding, but maybe you've got some humming sounds I can put in there. I could repitch them in a sampler and then play them along'.

So we spotted the whole movie that way and, while I was writing, I was in touch with Skip about the sounds he was developing, because I wanted the option to be able to sample some of those and use them musically. For me it was a perfect example of how that should be done. We have done it since then, but not on every film. I've done it a couple of times in Hollywood but it's really too bad that it's not done more often. A more common experience is that everyone works in their own world and they all meet up at the film mix and come to fisticuffs. An even worse result is that everything just gets mixed in very loudly and creates a mess. I would sooner have the fisticuffs myself and at least have someone make a decision about what the sound should be like.

In the key scene I mentioned when Barton is sweating in his hotel room, the collaboration between Skip and myself is evident. The violin sound obviously echoes the mosquitos ñ an aural theme that runs throughout the film. In that scene the mosquito is killed, but prior to that the mosquito has been all through the film and so those very high violins are often present. The combination of prepared piano, chimes and other metallic instruments complements the sounds of plumbing ñ another aural theme in the movie in that he hears voices and activities through the plumbing all the time. There are many times when the whole hotel creaks like a ship, and those sounds are matched with a lot of low brass. We hired something like six bass trombones for this score. It's a very strange ensemble: just violins, bass trombones and percussion. A relatively novel facet of the score is the way it attends to John Turturro's unscripted vocalisations: another instance of 'is it a little too arch or not'. I like it and fortunately Joel and Ethan laughed so we kept it. It is not unlike the stalling car cue in Blood Simple where the music, by suddenly paying attention in some way to what's happening on screen in a self-conscious way, actually shifts contexts at a time when you are most uncomfortable. He finds a woman inexplicably dead in his bed and it will never be explained, so to have humour come in ñ especially a humour that seems to have been the filmmakers entertaining themselves ñ takes you out of that discomfort and puts you in different, one which I enjoy.

Skip's work is clearly audible when the camera goes into the drain. You hear some wrestling noises from a previous scene, a man being thrown onto a wrestling mat. It relates to sexual sounds that may be coming from the bedroom. You hear a jet taking off. You hear those underwater sounds from The Abyss. All sorts of stuff; it's wonderful. When we finally put the score to Barton Fink on a record along with the score to Fargo, I put Skip's work on the CD along with the score.


This kind of similarity between the filmmaking process and the events contained within the scene is indicative of the work of the Coens, and yourself obviously. Is there a basis for this in other work, inspiration between you and the Coens maybe?

No. I cannot think of anything. One of the things I like about working with them is that I don't really think of their films as 'experimental'. They clearly come from a Hollywood tradition and there is much about the way they are made which tells you that, but I never go back and look at other films when I'm working on theirs or make explicit references to other films that I know of. I would like to think of the work the Coens and I do as being in our own little world, our own playground, so there is no conscious outside reference.

The film has a very hermetic feeling both visually and aurally, especially with the doors and the sound of sucking reversed wind. Is that idea very deliberate or did that build up because of the sound effects?

It is very, very deliberate. The character of Barton Fink is a serious playwright. He comes from New York and goes to Los Angeles. His thing is writing plays about the nobility of the common man, and he is very upfront about what he does. So he is condescending when he comes to Los Angeles to work on films. He goes to stay in this cheap hotel because he will be closer to the common man but as soon as he meets his next door neighbour, played by John Goodman, you quickly get the impression he's probably never met a common man in his life. This is just his conceit as a writer. And so, he enters a certain hell. This is why I say the childlike nature of the melody playing to his naivety helps to make you aware of this. He pretends to be a great intellect fighting for social equality yet he really has no idea what he is talking about.

The hermetic quality of the hotel is very deliberate because it really is hell for him and it will, in fact, become an inferno at the end of the film. The environment of the hotel is discomforting all through the film. There are very strange things happening. Inexplicably, the wallpaper comes off, and when he puts it back on the gum of the wallpaper is a disgusting, sticky substance. It gets all over his hands. It is endless. There are mosquitos, but as is pointed out by another character in the film, Los Angeles is in a desert: there are not meant to be any mosquitos there. I believe the sounds for the doors were Skip's idea, not Joel and Ethan's, but it arose at a very early stage of the film, this idea of the doors being like an airlock and that there is a vacuum sucking him into it.

Miller's Crossing

Miller's Crossing [1990] is my first orchestral score. The budget for the film was $8m, which was huge for Joel and Ethan, though it was nothing in Hollywood at the time. They wanted an orchestra, partly because they wanted to have the experience of working with one and partly because the film is so visually lush that they felt it should be aurally lush too. I had never worked with an orchestra before this, and anybody except Joel and Ethan would have gone and hired somebody who knew something about orchestras. But one of the things I love about them, and everyone who works with them does, is that they are very loyal and they do not have that much respect for the idea of you having experience in other areas or what education might mean. Ethan majored in philosophy at Princeton. I went to Harvard and Joel did film at NYU. We are educated but I do not think we feel the work we are doing is in any sense based on that education. I know mine isn't.

So they gave me three months to complete the score ñ which is, in Hollywood, an extremely luxurious length of time to work on a score. You are usually forced to complete a score in about six weeks. Sometimes you get surprisingly less. The Coens tend to make a decision to pay people less money but give them more time and basically more respect. And it is a trade-off that most people will do. I think almost all actors who work in their films are proud to be in them. I know I am and, as a result of us all making those trade-offs, Joel and Ethan garner a lot of respect. Doing Miller's Crossing I learned all about orchestras. I think it is the only score which, by the time I had finished it, was everything I wanted it to be. I did not merely turn it in because there were recording sessions the next day. It was fully finished and an additional day would not have made me change a note in it.

The problems the film presents are striking. It's an ironical score because the music does not sound like what you would expect for this film. It is based on a Dashiell Hammet story called The Glass Key, from which an earlier film was made. In the story there are two gangs, an Italian mob and an Irish gang, with Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney in the Irish gang. Finney is the big boss. (In fact, the town seems to be populated solely by gangs and gangsters.)

I first saw this film without music ñ an important feature about Joel and Ethan is that they never put 'temp' music onto their rough or fine cuts. At that initial viewing I saw that it was an extremely brutal film: the main character, played by Gabriel Byrne, must get kicked in the head six or seven times. You often do not know why Gabriel Byrne is going through this violence, or why he is willing to do it. But Finney and he are very close and, in my mind, that is the only thing that can explain his willingness to go through the cruelty he goes through during the film. I really wanted to express that 'love' he has for Albert Finney in the score somehow: if I could attach a theme to the love they have for each other early on in the picture, then recall that theme later, you would understand what was motivating him. Very early in the film Byrne appears to betray Finney. At the end of the movie you find out that that was just a ploy, a strategem, but Byrne never lets on. In fact, his face and his features never offer any explanation to his actions: he remains a cipher.

I imagined the theme to be derived from Irish melodies because the story features an Irish gang. Joel and Ethan wanted a lush score orchestral score so I decided to go for an extremely traditional arrangement. Hopefully that pays off at the end of the movie, because I progresively used less traditional arrangements and even some extreme Penderecki-style techniques. Those extreme moments mean a lot more because you got accustomed to the extremely traditional arrangement at the beginning of the film.

As it turned out, when we spotted the film, there was no place to put the theme under Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne together. That is a very interesting example of how spotting can affect the process of writing a film score, because I had this very definite idea of what the theme should be and why it should be there and what it should do. But it just was not possible because of the way the film was shot and written, so the first time I was able to introduce a theme is under the opening titles. This comes after we have seen Byrne and Finney together talking in a pre-credit sequence, and that was the best I could do. As Byrne leaves the room, the theme comes ñ an Irish folk melody played in very traditional manner by a full symphonic orchestra, with the oboe playing the lead melody. Hopefully the placement of the theme right there would still attach to the characters in some way, and convey a 'warmth' which is totally lacking in the visual style of the film. When we spotted the film I said to Joel and Ethan, 'Some warm music might be nice here. Something almost sentimental, because the movie is just so cold'. As I said earlier, Joel and Ethan do not think about warmth when they're writing their films, so their immediate reaction was 'Well, no, I don't think so'. They simply had not thought about this possibility, and said 'Well, maybe something neutral'. So I just went back and wrote the main theme and played it for them and they immediately got it. No further discussion. I love them for the fact that they do not have strong predispositions as to what the music is to be in their films. I don't know what it would be like to work with a director who does. Generally, if I sense on the phone or in a meeting that a director does know exactly what he wants, I will turn down the job ñ because where is the fun in that? The irony is that probably a lot of directors have a very definite idea of what they want ñ and those very ideas are not going to work with them.

As in all of the Coens' movies, Miller's Crossing has a 'set piece'. It is my favourite part of their films, usually because it has nothing to do with the plot. There is also usually no dialogue either. In a way, these set pieces are Joel getting the option to exercise himself. In the Miller's Crossing 'set piece' Albert Finney is at home relaxing ñ being an Irish mob boss, he's in bed, smoking a cigar and listening to a 78 playing Danny Boy. The music we hear from the old record player is sometimes non-diegetic and sometimes diegetic: it begins sounding like a score but then it becomes, momentarily, source music when we go into Albert Finney's bedroom and we see it coming from a record player there. Being momentarily diegetic there, the music attaches to him in a very particular way because we know that he chose to put it on. It becomes like the slippers that we see him put on: he 'carries' the music with him even as he leaves the house. At that point, of course, the music is not strictly diegetic anymore but it clings to him like his clothes, his slippers, the cigar in his mouth. A huge gunfight ensues outside his house, but I think what makes him feel totally at home as he blasts away on his machine gun is that he has brought his favourite tune with him along with his cigar and slippers. He seems comfy and relaxed in this situation, and it tells you a lot about his character.

There's an interesting story about how the song for this scene was recorded. During the editing, the scene was needing a song and it had to be an Irish song from the twenties. Joel and Ethan, for lack of anything else, found a recording of Danny Boy and cut the scene to that song however they did not anticipate using that very song. I think we all felt that it was so familiar, it would be more interesting for us to find a wonderful Irish song of the period that people did not already know. Weeks went by and we listened to all these Irish recordings from the period but we couldn't find anything better. So, we resigned ourselves to using that song. Its correct name is "Londonderry Air". We looked at the recording we had been listening to and it was sung by one Frank Patterson who according to musical critics of our time, is considered the greatest living Irish tenor. Typical of Joel and Ethan, they thought 'Well, let's see if we can get him to do it ñ you never know'.

It turned out he was living in New York at that moment, so he came by the editing room and looked at the film. Now, you show a sequence like that to someone who is completely unfamiliar with the Coensí style and they might run out of the room screaming. But he loved it; his reaction was 'This song will have new meaning for a whole new generation'. But we didn't want to use the song exactly how it was on the original recording. We needed certain actions to sync to key moments in the song. For example, just prior to the car hitting the tree and bursting into flames, there is a long note held by Frank in the new recording that perfectly matches the timing of the edit. When we pointed out to Frank these moments of synchronization, he was amazingly game about the process and wrote down notes about what words went with which visual actions. We recorded it like an studio session from the twenties: Frank was up front with a typically small orchestra of about 25 players, and a conductor from the period ñ Larry Wilcox ñ wrote an authentic 'old-sounding' arrangement to complement the music. Larry watched Frank sing; Frank watched the video; and the musicians watched the conductor. This 'free conducting' is very hard, yet it was acheived in two takes.

The Hudsucker Proxy

The Hudsucker Proxy is actually the film which Joel and Ethan said I had the least connection to. I've never quite understood the film. It is very funny and, again, a great script to read, but it seemed like the sort of film Jerry Lewis might make. So to me it was not that interesting. But for Joel and Ethan it was a bigger budget than they were used to, so they enjoyed the huge sets and, again, a big orchestra. I admit that I do not quite understand what the movie was about and Joel and Ethan were not able to help because they do not discuss things like that, nor do they 'explain' the movie to people. So, I did my best.

In the tragic climax of the film, Tim Robbins, who begins as a mail boy at Hudsucker Industry and becomes the president, finds himself on New Year's Eve contemplating suicide. The theme that plays here is a restatement of the theme from the very beginning of the movie. I think by restating this theme that we heard earlier, it seems to reinforce that idea of what is happening 'now' in the film's present. In this tragic scene, the score for me is a little 'mickey mousie': the music is directly and obviously mimicking the on-screen action. The character goes through a door, the music changes, and so on. Something happens, the music changes. It is not a technique that I would use in a movie unless there was a specific reason, which is usually for humorous effect, and that is why it is here. When you have a tragic situation and the music makes these little shifts and comments on action, I think it tends to lighten the situation and allows you to step back slightly. We can see humour in it, and the fact that Tim Robbins cannot see the humour makes for a tension that I think is interesting. Yet at the same time, I hope I am doing it lightly so that we remain sympathetic to his character. If we do not ñ then I have not succeeded.


Has it ever been the case that once your music is placed over a scene, the Coens and their editor rework the cut to fit particular rhythms, stresses or nuances in the music?

A good question. It does happen sometimes though it is relatively rare ñ partly because Joel started out as an editor, so usually by the time he has edited his film he is pretty confident about how it should be. But there are often times when I can point something out, especially at the end or beginning of a scene, where I might be a little more flexible. I can say 'If you add a second here or cut this a little bit, I could do something musically that wouldn't be as awkward'. There is probably one such moment on each film. It is not a common thing but it does happen and it is much more apt to happen in situations like this where you have a trusting relationship with the director. Although, on the film I just did with Steven Frears ñ which is the first time we've worked together ñ I asked him if he could add nineteen seconds to a scene and he said 'Sure, no problem'. So, it varies. I think people understand that I do not ask such things for no good reason.

Was the Hudsucker Proxy your first experience with a choral arrangement?

No, I had done choral arrangements with other filmmakers by that point. I also used to sing in a choir myself and actually performed at the Adelaide Festival ten years ago in a group called The Harmonic Choir. In that group we did overtone singing, so it did not necessarily prepare me for doing four-part harmony, but I had done choral material before. In The Hudsucker Proxy it is pretty obvious when I use the choir: it only comes in when people go off the top of that building. For one of those occasions, I wrote a separate part for the soprano because I wanted her to get up to a high C so that by the time the body in question is nearing the sidewalk, the sound would almost be out of control. She did a great job.


I think Fargo [1996] probably represents one of the more subtle and interesting musical choices I have made in my film scoring because it is an unlikely combination not only of comedy and tragedy, but also of dramatic writing based on a true story. None of the other Coen films do this. I was never distracted by whether it was true or not, but I was aware that the audience would need to believe that it was true. It would help the story to believe that and if you pushed the comedy too much people might stop believing it. If the film makers become too arch and go for comedy in the middle of killings and other violence, I think the believability of the story then suffers. It was a fine line to walk in Fargo.

There were many roles for music in Fargo ñ so much so that I had to write them down because they constituted such a challenge. The music has to play the crime story. It has to be believable. It has to seem like it's representing an historical event And it has to simulate a 'true crime story' which is a very melodramatic genre. But in this particular 'true crime story', the two people who do the killing are played by Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi as buffoons. They are ridiculous in almost every scene. So the music has to accommodate their comedy but you still have to believe that they are going to kill someone. The film takes place in Minnesota and North Dakota and there is a lot of local colour in those regional accents. As the characters are written in the script, the people have a desperate cheerfulness that comes out in the worst of situations. But there is loneliness and despair behind a lot of that cheerfulness. They live in a dark, cold climate, so hopefully that undercurrent to their cheerfulness can be played with the music.

My solution to this complex set of problems was to direct the music to always take itself seriously. In other words, the music is going to say 'Yes, I am a crime drama and I am going to take myself seriously'. This allowed me to play the drama and make that believable, but, by the music taking itself too seriously, I was also able to push the comedy. Particularly as there is not much action in the film: when it does occur, the music is often over the top with bombast, and hopefully that helps with the comedy. I organized and directed the orchestra very much in the tradition of Nino Rotta: low winds, brass, percussion and few strings. This is a much lower budget film than the one before it, The Hudsucker Proxy, but I also felt that that a smaller orchestra was appropriate ñ the exact kind of orchestra that was often used for low budget crime movies like The Killers 1997]. Another element of the score is that there is a personal story going on. Bill Macey plays the male protagonist who sets the crime in motion, and the character played by Frances McDormand is the female protagonist, who is the police chief on his trail. She also happens to be pregnant. I wanted the music to play on intimate scales for these characters, and especially for the pathos of Bill Macey. I think he defines the archetypal pathetic character.

I do some musical research for most of the films, and for Fargo I was listening to Scandinavian music. This was before they were even shooting the film, because all the characters have Scandinavian names and their accent is somehow derived from a Scandinavian accent ñ although why that is so remains a mystery to me. I thought it would be interesting to inject some Scandanavian feeling into it. There is a 'coldness' in a lot of Scandinavian music, not so much with the melodies, but with the way instruments are played. Their folk music usually relvolves around a fiddle called the hardanger fiddle which has five or six strings that are played, but underneath them are a group of sympathetic strings that are not directly played but which vibrate in sympathy with the strings that are being played. It creates a glistening effect around the sound. It also tends to be played in a manner not unlike how we think of in the States as Appalachian 'hillbilly' music. This approach to instrumentation seemed right for the coldness of the theme I composed for Fargo. The hardanger fiddle is also a solo instrument, played in the mid scale, so I used a small idiosyncratic ensemble for the personal scenes comprised of hardanger fiddle, harp and cha and then just let it grow bigger from there. For example, in the very opening scene, we see a commonplace action: a guy driving a trailer with a car on it through the snow. But the music begins with this extremely delicate intimate melody, gets a little bigger, then grows to a ridiculously large scale.

Fargo gave rise to the question of what is comedy and how exactly does one play it musically. For instance, how should the music play to the two bad guys? I would say that the killers are essentially buffoons, but they do ruthlessly kill people through the film. They can be played for comedy, but the question is how to do it. For the scene where the two killers relax in the hotel room watching The Johnny Carson Show in the dark, I composed a synthesizer sketch which we eventually did not use. The music made a statement that the film knew it was a comedy. By not using this cue and instead having the sound of The Johnny Carson Show theme play lightly, the impression is that the film takes itself seriously: it does not know it is a comedy. It is then left to the audience to decide if it is a comedy or not. Viewers reading this scene with a knowledge of film context would probably get the joke of the overblown music, but the absence of that cue allows the bad guys their dignity. I played both options to Joel and Ethan. They laughed at the first one but they liked the second one. They wanted the movie to take itself more seriously.


How many times might you rewrite a cue, given that you had written two versions of that one. Does rewriting like that happen often?

The example from Fargo was not so much a question of rewriting a cue as it was of deciding the theme for these characters. I often just take a scene and test some thematic material against it: if it works in one place I'm pretty sure it is going to work somewhere else. And it raises key questions about what the theme should be, so I used that scene from Fargo to help me decide on things. Rewriting cues does not happen that often with Joel and Ethan. We are generally in agreement as to what type of film we are making, and at what level the humour exists, as in this last example from Fargo. But Joel and Ethan also place their faith in me because we have been through this so many times that, if we have a disagreement, and I feel strongly that I am right, they will generally give me the benefit of the doubt. They always do.

You mentioned earlier using synthesizers and samplers for composing sketches and testing orchestration. Does it surprise you when you get the orchestral recording back? Is there a problem with the translation between something you might try out on a synth and how you can get an orchestral player to perform that?

Not really ñ partly because I have in my mind what is going to happen as we move from a sketch to the finished thing. I know pretty much what those changes will be ñ of which there definitely are many ñ though I cannot really think of too many surprises. It has generally been a favourable surprise. A typical difference between a synthesised recording and an orchestral one is in the greater dynamic range of the orchestral recording which you do not achieve with synthesizers generally. For the opening title theme of Fargo, I wrote or suggested performance ornaments for the violin part on the score, but I was well aware that by getting the right fiddle player, he was going to do a lot better than anything I could write. So recordings are almost always a series of wonderful surprises. The reverse does happen sometimes. If you write for special instruments like, say, the theremin, as Howard Shore did for Ed Wood, you can have a wonderful idea of what it should sound like in your mind but then discover that it is extremely hard to find people who can play it.

I wrote a piece for a musical saw a couple of years ago just hoping there was a great musical saw player out there somewhere and, in fact, there is. He's a classical violinist who lives in New York and who doubles on musical saw. So I lucked out, but it will often be true that if you write for strange instruments and you do not already know exactly who will play them, it can be a challenge to get a decent performance and recording. Especially folk instruments: finding someone who reads but can also play folk material. But when you do find someone, it is usually a pleasant surprise.

The Big Lebowski

Joel and Ethan foresaw The Big Lebowski [1998] as a movie full of songs. The script was filled with references to songs because the main character, known as 'the dude' and played by Jeff Bridges, pretty much scores his own life with a Walkman. The songs are playing all the time. We agreed right from the start that there was not going to be anything that sounds like a score. There were definitely things for me to do but they could not sound like a composed score. A score would change the nature of the film and change 'the dude's' relationship with the film. If suddenly music starts coming from somewhere else it would be disconcerting once we had already established that 'The Dude' is scoring his own life with his tapes.

So this meant, for instance, there was no opportunity for me to have a theme for the film or a character and develop it, because the things that I would write had to sound like songs. I wrote about six or seven pieces which all sound like songs. When you see the movie you would have no idea what my contribution was because there is nothing that appears as score.

There is one cue which we call 'The Jazz Piece'. It is one of the closest things to being scored. Towards the end of the film, Jeff Bridges has reached a peak in this little detective story. He runs out of his apartment and the cue starts. At first it seems that it is playing his idea of what detective music should be. As the scene develops it transforms into diegetic music and becomes a source coming from someone else's car ñ someone else who also thinks he is a detective and who we have never seen before. We think it is Jeff Bridges' detective music but it turns out to be the music of another guy, John Filido. Throughout this scene the music is manipulated sonically to go from one point to the other.

The Big Lebowski climaxes with a confrontation between the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys are the three slacker bowlers: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi; the bad guys are the three nihilist bikers. There is a reference made at another point in the film that these bikers at one time were a German electro pop band in the late seventies, obviously modelled on Kraftwerk. I guess the idea is that this is what happens to seventies' electro pop bands in Germany: they end up as nihilist bikers in LA. Joel and Ethan had considered licensing a Kraftwerk tune for this scene, but my background really is in electronic music and I was just very taken with Kraftwerk at a certain point in the late seventies too, so I thought it would be great fun to do a German electro pop tune. So I composed a little song with the vocoded vocals and everything typical of the period. But I wrote it also to score the scene. As I say, it is the showdown in the movie, but the music is coming quite clearly from a boom box that one of the nihilists is carrying on his shoulder and which becomes a weapon later in the scene. The music is not very audible, but it is actually following the action. The song has a German lyric line which is a statement the nihilists keep making throughout the movie: 'We believe in nussing'.

Text © Carter Burwell & Philip Brophy 1999.